My Mother’s Catfish Stew

By  |  September 3, 2019
Photo by Cheryle St. Onge, from the series Calling the Birds Home. Instagram: @cherylestonge Photo by Cheryle St. Onge, from the series Calling the Birds Home. Instagram: @cherylestonge

 

When my mother passed in March of 2001, Blair was on bed rest in advance of the birth of our son. Beginning that January, I had flinched every time the phone rang. Was she going, or was he coming? 

End-stage dementia and malnutrition took her. That’s what my mother’s death certificate said. But the previous two decades had done damage that an autopsy might not show. By the mid-1970s, when she was in her fifties, tumblers of morning vodka had replaced bottles of evening beer. After I left for college in 1980, my father divorced her and married a co-worker. Somewhere in there, she drove her Plymouth into a ditch and got fished out by the sheriff. By the early 1980s, my mother had wrecked most of her friendships, too. 

After their divorce finalized in 1982, my mother moved from Clinton, Georgia, where I grew up, to Columbia, South Carolina, where her sister lived. After a stroke in the early ’90s, she moved again, this time to Atlanta, Georgia, where I lived before I moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Nearly a decade in a nursing home followed. I don’t recall much from that time, but I do remember that, early on, a nurse asked me to quit bringing her the mouthwash she requested. I didn’t understand, until the nurse told me that my mother’s preferred brand contained alcohol. 

Our neighbor Glenn Hunt delivered Jess eleven days after my mother died. Her newspaper obituary said the service would be private. In truth, there was none. Later that summer, as Jess began to sleep through the night, my father carried her ashes back to Bowman, South Carolina, where she was born. In the years since, I’ve traveled through Orangeburg County on the way to and from Charleston, but I’ve never visited the grave of Mary Beverly Evans Edge. Her resting place, and my responsibility to her, had slipped my mind. 

 

My mother loomed large in my very small hometown. Frustrated by Clinton, bored by what was expected of her, she worked hard to recast the pageant in which she fitfully participated. Back in the early 1970s, when I was baseball obsessed, she served as a perennial team mother. When my Little League team won a county championship, she showered us with a bottle of Champagne. After some of the parents objected, my mother told them that she had cut the Champagne with Sprite. A bright smile creased her face. And she threw her head back and laughed, like Bette Davis in her black-and-white prime. We deserved to celebrate like the pros did on television, she said, and then my mother shook the bottle again, spraying down the few kids who had missed her first volley. 

Late one summer afternoon, a year or so later, she stood before my Little League teammates, alongside a furled American flag, in the banquet room of a Shoney’s in nearby Macon. As we dug into burgers and shrimp baskets, she passed out Kennedy half-dollars and paraphrased his inaugural address, saying, Ask not what Little League Baseball can do for you—ask what you can do for Little League Baseball. 

I was embarrassed by her, but more embarrassed by my failure. We had lost a playoff game. Specifically, I lost the game when I threw three wild pitches in a row and a player from the other team scored from first. Dressed in a red skirt and a white blouse to match our red-and-white uniforms, her gray-and-blond hair tumbling from beneath a ball cap, my mother asked us that day to dig deep and find meaning in that loss. 

In that moment, she looked so happy, working the crowd, hugging necks, handing each player a round of silver. She was her best self. She knew it, and I knew it, too. 

She was a genius, I’ve come to recognize, at recasting defeats as glorious spectacles. Faced with small-town ignorance, fearful of what small-town boredom might wrest from her, she did her best to divert and subvert. Looking back, I see my best self in her flagrancy. And I glimpse what my worst self might have nurtured, had the darker times in Clinton defined my life.

When I was not yet a teenager, as my mother and I ate salmon croquettes and conjugated verbs at the kitchen table, I heard a small pop in another room. On the floor of my parents’ bedroom, I found the young man my parents paid to work odd jobs, the black young man my mother called the houseboy. That horrific discovery looms in the stories I tell about my childhood, but my memory only carries me to the footboard on my father’s side of the bed, where blood spilled from his head and pooled on the heart pine planks. 

For reasons I still don’t understand, that young man, just a couple years older than me, had shot himself to death with my father’s pistol. (Earlier this year, my father told me that the mother of one of my young friends had cruelly spread the rumor that I’d pulled the trigger.) 

Drink and depression took my mother. She and my father argued often, over different things, but most of their fights ended the same way—with my mother throwing herself at my father’s feet, like a stock character from a theater production, begging for something she knew she would never get. My father recognized that our home was no place to raise a boy. Again and again he plotted moves that never came to pass, including an application for a Fulbright to study criminology at Cambridge. And I counted on changes that never gained traction. 

When I was in my mid-teens, my mother ran out the door with a pistol of her own, threatening to kill herself. A couple of minutes later, we heard a crack from the dark woods. My father and I ran into the night to find her crying on a bench in the rock garden, among the azaleas, beneath a cedar arbor. A warm pistol lay on the cold ground by her side. 

About this same time, some of our neighbors began burgling our home. We lived on seven acres out in the country. On Saturdays, those neighbors sometimes waited in those woods until we left for Atlanta. They crashed through burglar bars, broke down doors, axed through windows, and took what they could use or sell, often the stereo components I had begun to buy and trade. This happened so often that my father, who worked as a federal probation and parole officer, had an alarm system installed, with a bullhorn siren mounted at the back eave that faced the woods and an infrared motion detection device, linked to the sheriff’s office. 

On the very afternoon that elaborate system was installed, my family returned home to find Lilliput, our blond-and-apricot-curled Yorkipoo, lying in a pool of blood. Our burglars had blasted apart the siren with a shotgun. When our yippy dog wouldn’t stop yipping, they gouged her throat with one of our fireplace pokers. And then they retreated through the woods. 

Later that same year, a Little League teammate’s older brother, who lived on the other side of those woods and led the burglaries of our home, killed his own father and left his body in a burning car, just up the road. I learned through the local newspaper that their father had been a Baptist preacher.

I grew up a country boy, spelunking the deep gulley behind our house, fording creeks barefoot in cutoff shorts. I can recall the thrill of swingblading through privet to make a clearing. But in the wake of those burglaries, the woods became a place of menace. I have carried little knowledge of and appreciation for the natural world into adulthood. Ask me now to name a bush or a flower or a bird, and I blank. Compare a tree canopy to a cathedral, as a friend did recently, and I wish I could see what you see. 

The country unmade my mother. And it nearly unmade me. On the other side of the azaleas, beyond the clearing, threats real and imagined lurked. Years would pass before I connected the country where my mother went haywire to the country where burglars crouched in the woods. But I knew from the time I was a teenager that I wanted to leave Clinton and those woods behind. Even as I longed to carry the best of my mother forward.

 

She gave me much to carry. When I was in grammar school and our high school baseball team played at storied Luther Williams Field in Macon, my mother refused to sit with the masses, way back in the grandstand. Instead, she spread a blanket over the dugout. My classmates sometimes heckled us when we scrambled over the railing, for we were nearly on the field, and we were surely a spectacle. 

That was just the way she wanted it. As her thin hair blew in the afternoon breeze, my mother told me to keep my eyes on the field. Don’t look back at the crowd, she said. Don’t give your detractors an audience. 

Frustrated by her own youthful failure to quit the small-town South, cowed by parents who couldn’t understand her drive to be different, my mother had willed me to be different. A small-town girl who raised a small-town boy, she thought that willful difference could serve me as a kind of armor. 

By the time I entered the first grade, she had tacked a poster to the wall of my bedroom. I can’t recall the background image, but I did memorize the text, pulled from chapter eighteen of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

For the longest time, when someone asked about my mother, I told stories like the ones I’ve shared here, weaving a portrait of a gregarious woman of great social intelligence. She was that. She was also brazen and zealous. 

I have a photo from around 1976, from what I think was a bicentennial pageant. She had intended to costume me as Thomas Jefferson. Or maybe it was Benjamin Franklin. The look was small town flouncy: Wearing a blousy shirt with ruffles at the chest and at the wrists, my pants tucked into over-the-calf boots, I squint back into the camera. Looking at it now, I can’t believe my father let me out the door. And I can’t believe how confident and easy-in-my-bones I looked. 

After I flunked out of college, where I did my best to match my mother’s alcohol intake and channel her social skills, at about the time I won my first corporate job, I walked the aisles of an Atlanta grocery store with a roommate, picking up supplies for a steak dinner we planned to cook for friends. We had stacked the cart high with artichokes and T-bones and Idaho potatoes and were on the way to the checkout when I doubled back to get a sweet potato. My friend Brandt looked at me and asked, Why do you always have to be different? He didn’t mean it as a challenge. He wanted to understand. But I didn’t know then how to explain myself. 

 

This winter, as our son applied to colleges, I went looking for my mother. I wanted to know what she was like, before busted dreams and booze and violence and depression took her, back when she was full of promise and brio like Jess is now. Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, had invited me to give a talk. When they asked, the conference organizers didn’t know that my mother had studied there. 

I climbed the steps of the onetime library where she crammed for exams. I peered into the windows of her former dorm. At the archives, I thumbed a yearbook from 1940. My mother, age seventeen, stared back in her class photo, precocious and confident, pale eyes shining, blond hair coaxed into tight curls. I inspected a twirler’s uniform like the one she wore, and a prim school uniform, too. 

Later, when people asked me what it was like to walk the grounds of her college, I said all the right things: It was emotional. I got a glimpse of her life. I closed the loop. The truth was, I didn’t get a sense of her world as a seventeen-year-old until I quit campus for the Ebenezer Grill, a diner on the edge of town where the owner greets newcomers like me by introducing us to counter mates. I met an old guy named Pookie, who loved Winnie-the-Pooh as a child and never shook the nickname. And I met a husband-and-wife team that sold charcoal at the tailgate of their pickup. 

I imagined myself sliding onto a stool there on weekday mornings. I imagined myself belonging to that place. Like me, my mother loved a crowd. And she would have loved that crowd. She came alive in bars and restaurants. At Ebenezer, over a breakfast of liver mush and grits, between sips of coffee, I recognized the common drive to belong in a scrum of strangers and friends, the want to step out of the grandstand and into the spotlight, that links us today. 

 

Earlier this summer, as Blair and I stood in the kitchen of our Oxford home after a weeknight dinner, I told her about the guilt I carry for shutting my mother out. We display few family pictures, I said. Her style has gone missing from my life, I worried. It’s my fault, I implied, that Jess doesn’t know much about her, and that I have blocked her from the stories we tell about ourselves. 

Blair listened for a while and then reached for a piece of silver that had passed to us when my mother died. And she nodded toward a framed copy of my mother’s catfish stew recipe, inspired by her father’s fish camp on the Edisto River, near Bowman, South Carolina. 

Gently, patiently, Blair reminded me that, although she has adapted that recipe, using a more modern one from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, the reason we serve that catfish stew at every third dinner party is that we made a decision a while back, during another time of introspection and doubt, to remember my mother in that way. What Blair didn’t have to say is what I already knew: My written voice, my visual style, my want to step into the spotlight, were born of her deferred hopes.

My mother would have loved the stew Blair now makes. And she would have loved the life Blair and Jess and I have made together, in which our friends write books and play music and make art, and often gather in our home to talk about that work and mark those achievements. Our life is rooted in the small town we claim, but it is not limited by our small town’s geographical and social contours. If I try hard I can picture my mother at our table, spooning into a bowl of catfish stew, talking about the promise of the wide world beyond the South Carolina small town that birthed her and the Georgia woods that entrapped us. 

 

Our little family has spent a good bit of the summer plotting Jess’s departure for college. On the advice of our former minister, I started writing a sort of instructional manual for him. The accounting, now at six pages, includes how to haggle at a market, how to buy and season and grill a ribeye, and how to mix a negroni. Blair and I have also been looking for mementos that convey the same thing: We made you and we love you and we hope to help you as you make your way. And I’ve begun to reckon with how I might ready Jess to carry forward memories of the grandmother he never knew. What you read here is a start.

For his eighteenth birthday, Blair and I gave Jess an Alberto Cruz lithograph we bought on impulse, after a boozy dinner in Oaxaca, Mexico. It shows a young boy trudging forward under the burden of a house strapped to his body like a backpack. With that gift, which we hope he will hang in his dorm room this fall, Blair and I aimed to say, No matter where you go, your home and your little family will go with you. And, No matter the future struggles you face, what you gained under our roof will carry you forward. 

Thinking of my mother, and of the home in the woods where I grew up, I now recognize another meaning: No matter where I go, no matter how happy our little family might be, I will always carry forward what went right and wrong out there in that house in the country near Clinton. Now, as Jess packs to leave, I pray that the load we have strapped to his back does not serve as drag, but as propulsion.


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John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers, has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. He directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA program in narrative nonfiction at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism, and hosts the television show TrueSouth on SEC/ESPN. Season two debuts this fall.